Depression: Unemployed;destitute man leaning against vacant store:photo by Dorothea Lange, circa 1935

The Trauma of Unemployment

Forrest ChristianCareers 2 Comments

So, you lost your job.

Maybe it really is a “killer job market”. Yet here you are, sending out more resumes, hitting “Apply” in the job website, making the rounds. And nothing seems to be working.

You keep at it, but it’s getting tiring. Your spouse, originally so supportive, is asking how long this is going to take. “Mary lost her job last week and had an offer in two days!”

You keep at it. You go through phone screenings with recruiters. “You’re amazing!”, they say. They’re going to put you before the hiring manager this afternoon. Then, nothing. Again and again.

You keep at it. The in-laws start making suggestions about how they saw an article about how the market is the hottest ever. What, you hear, is wrong with you?

You keep at it. Your friends stop asking how the hunt is going. You feel their thoughts. It’s like you have a disease that’s catching. Or cancer. You have cut back on your expenses, hard. You’re not meeting up with them like you used to. You don’t have the cash.

You keep at it, but you’re beginning to run out of the usual options. You don’t even get call backs. You get excited about a new prospect — it’s an interview! You go through the motions, even putting on a suit to have the phone screening. “We’ll get back to you,” you hear.

And you wait. But no one gets back to you. And they don’t return your calls or emails.

Your spouse starts asking you things. “Why aren’t they calling you back? Aren’t you qualified? I can’t imagine why they aren’t hiring you? What is going on?” What’s wrong with you? you hear.

And you start wondering, what is wrong with me?

One day, you land an interview. It’s for less. The responsibility is less. And they aren’t really interested in you. It’s a bad group. You start, keep your mouth shut, and wait for an opportunity to jump.

You feel better than you did — any job is better than no job — but you don’t feel as happy about life as you did. Things that you enjoyed, that you used to do, aren’t as appealing. Sure, you don’t have the income that you had and what you’re getting is going to make up for dipping into your retirement funds. But life just doesn’t taste as good as it did any more.

Welcome to the trauma of long-term unemployment.

It’s worse when you go through it during a boom time. There is less social support. There is more judgment.

And it has permanently adjusted your sense of well-being, what researchers call your “life satisfaction set-point”. It’s like the happiness thermostat in your body isn’t working like it used to. You can feel pretty happy at times, but you fall back to a set point that is lower than it used to be. Your day-to-day normal is not as satisfied with things.

Your life has lost its saltiness.

The period of unemployment results in the symptoms that mirror long-term trauma. This loss of interest in things is often a sign, as are the diminished relationships. If you run a trauma screening, the serial unemployed can come up with a positive.

We don’t think that. We tell ourselves a lie that when people find work again, they will return to normalcy.

It isn’t true. And the research backs it up.

Men who are unemployed multiple times see a permanent drop in their “Life Satisfaction Setpoint”, a standard measure that is more meaningful than happiness. They don’t just not bounce back to being as “happy” as they were. After two or three, they don’t even bounce back to being as happy as they were when their Life Satisfaction Setpoint was depressed in their first unemployment.

They often lose hope. For populations of young men, lack of employment options is strongly correlated with violence and crime. For older workers, who have lost what they had, it is heavily associated with drug use, primarily opioids.

The unemployed, even when there are great structural changes afoot, are looked upon by the employed as having something wrong with them. Even when the difference is luck or, as in the Great Recession, graduating one year earlier.

These effects are long lasting. They cost us. They cost them.

Wilfred Brown, the great industrialist / union supporter / trade minister / organizational theorist, said that full employment was one of society’s greatest needs. A great society will provide as full as is possible.

There’s a lot ot unpack.

There’s a lot to discuss.

There is a road to hope.

Comments 2

  1. Glad you are writing, Forrest…but what a topic! Very necessary to focus on the damage brought by losing a sense of worth.

  2. Post

    What’s odd, Jack, is that this is my last post written months ago. Between my research into unemployment and that of the effects of solitary confinement and isolation, you’d think I’d been being prepared most of my life to be useful now.

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